What Does "Accredited College" Mean?

Q: I've been looking into online colleges, and a lot of people are telling me I need to look at accredited colleges. What does "accredited college" mean, and why is this such a big deal?

Curiously yours,

Jenna, this is a great question, and first I want to tell you that you're getting good advice. No matter what college you're interested in, accreditation is important. But when it comes to exploring colleges that are online, accredited colleges are all you should consider, and you'll want to scrutinize any online school's accreditation closely.

Benefits of Accreditation

So, what does "accredited college" mean?

According to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), a national association of roughly 3,000 degree-granting colleges and universities that promote self-regulation through accreditation, accreditation is a voluntary process of external peer review conducted by third-party college accreditation agencies. In 2012, there were 80 federally recognized college accreditation agencies currently performing accreditation review in the U.S. The review process assures that schools achieve a certain standard of quality, and continue to make quality improvements to maintain such standards.

Accreditation is a century-old practice that, while not managed by the U.S. Department of Education, is utilized by federal and state governments in determining how funds are distributed to schools and how financial aid is disbursed. In 2013, there were approximately 8,300 higher education institutions and more than 21,000 programs accredited in the U.S.

In simple terms, if a school is not accredited you have no insurance of rigor or quality, no set of standards, and therefore no way of showing future employers that your degree has value. Having accreditation makes it possible to secure financial aid through state or federal sources, helps to ease the transfer process (should you ever decide to change schools), and tells the world that you've earned a degree that prepares you for the workforce.

As CHEA explains, there are four kinds of college accreditation agencies:

  1. Regional: These agencies accredit public and private, mainly nonprofit, degree-granting two- and four-year institutions. Examples include the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) Commission on Colleges.

  2. National Faith-Related: Accredit religious or faith-based institutions (mainly nonprofit). An example is the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE) Commission on Accreditation.

  3. National Career-Related: Accredit mainly for-profit, career-based, single-purpose institutions for degree- and non-degree-seeking students. Many online programs fall into this category. There are two of these recognized by CHEA: Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), and Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) Accrediting Commission.

  4. Programmatic Accreditors: Accredit programs, professions and free-standing schools, rather than institutions as a whole. Examples include Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, and Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE).

To ensure that you're only looking at accredited online colleges, consult the U.S. Department of Education's updated Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs below.

Online vs. Traditional Colleges

If people are concerned about the accreditation of online schools, it's for good reason. Unfortunately, many for-profit online institutions went into the higher ed business to make money, without much concern for the quality of their offerings. These "diploma mills" make outrageous promises, such as enabling students to complete bachelor's degrees in less than a year. They may show you an impressive list of "accreditations," but these may be for-profit entities that are not recognized for offering quality assurance. Double check with CHEA or the U.S. Department of Education for a complete list of recognized accrediting bodies.


U.S. Department of Education, Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, http://ope.ed.gov/accreditation/

U.S. Department of Education, Regional and National Institutional Accrediting Agencies, http://www2.ed.gov/admins/finaid/accred/accreditation_pg6.html#NationallyRecognized

Council for Higher Education Accreditation, Directory of CHEA-Recognized Organizations 2013-2014, http://www.chea.org/Directories/index.asp